Inside a classroom at Montgomery Elementary School in Chula Vista. / Photo by Megan Wood

Faced with a national movement calling to defund police, California’s Legislature has decided to defund schools instead. Its plan is set out in 43502-b of the state’s education budget trailer bills (Assembly Bill 77 and Senate Bill 98), which will come up for a final vote next week:

[F]or purposes of calculating apportionments for the 2020–21 fiscal year… the department shall use the average daily attendance in the 2019–20 fiscal year…

To understand why this is a big deal, you need to understand a little bit about how schools are funded. Average daily attendance, or ADA, measures the number of students who enrolled in your school, and are actually showing up to class. ADA is to schools as album sales used to be to bands: It’s the source of nearly all their money. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but fundamentally it makes sense: Each school gets funded based on the number of students who attend.

That’s not how things are going to work in the coming school year. Now, schools are going to get funding based on the number of students who attended last year.

There’s an excellent reason for this: One of the impacts of COVID-19 on education is that some families have chosen to disenroll from school. This means that many schools are facing a steep drop in funding at a time when they need to spend more than ever in order to reopen safely in the fall. Protecting their funding is a noble intention, and the Legislature should be applauded for it. And if that were where the impact of this bill ended, it would be a cause for celebration.

But there’s a catch: If a school has enrolled more students this year than last year, not a single one of those students brings any funding with them. Now, when new schools open, they often open up one grade at a time. That means that a high school that opened last year with only ninth grade will be doubling its student body next year. According to the new budget, that school will only have funding for half of its students. The increased staffing costs alone make this impossible.

Then there are schools that decided to enroll more students in an effort to be fiscally responsible and cover their costs, since, as I said, ADA is where funding comes from. Those schools are now discovering that their plan to address their budget problems is leaving them worse off than if they had done nothing.

The timing of this bill is particularly cruel: Schools have already enrolled students for the coming year, so they now must decide either to force out students who are expecting to start in September, or start the year without enough funding to keep their students and staff safe during the pandemic.

For some schools, there will be no choice –without adequate funding, they will simply need to close.

And then consider this: Where will the students go if their school cannot stay open? What school is going to take them, knowing that they bring no ADA funding? What school will even be ABLE to take them?

There is a simple fix. The budget could be amended so that all schools are funded either according to their 2019–2020 ADA levels, or according to their 2020-2021 ADA levels, whichever is higher. This would protect schools that lose students without punishing schools for gaining students.

This solution is fair, it’s humane and most important, it will provide all schools with the funds they need to open safely in the fall.

Alec Patton works at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education in Point Loma. He is the editor of High Tech High Unboxed, and host of the High Tech High Unboxed podcast. Before he joined the graduate school, he was a high school teacher. 

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